Our Hawaiian t-shirted tour guide Orito is filling us in on the region. He’s had this job since coming back to his hometown of Takayama after graduating college. There’s no university in the area, so kids never come back after leaving for school he says. “It’s an old village, full of old people,” Orito laments. But because he’s a tour guide by trade, he does so with a smile.
Carl and I aren’t ones for tours, but the only way for a car-less traveler to get to the centuries old town of Shirakawa-go from Takayama is via bus. Besides, sometimes you just need to embrace being a tourist, and not worry that you’re absolutely butchering the language or walking on the wrong side down the metro stairs, and what better place to go full-tourist than a town of under 2,000.
With only seven of us on the bus — a Japanese couple and a German family with their teenage daughter — we all crowd the front rows while Orito pulls out a horrifying object from his seat. It’s the size of a small toddler, red, with a featureless face and pointed arms and legs resembling tentacles. These Sarubobo are associated with the Takayama region and are said to bring good luck, it’s featureless face allowing you to project your own emotions onto the doll, creating a friend to commiserate with. When I didn’t jump at the opportunity to have my photo taken with this fiend Orito all but shook him in my face saying how cute he was, at which point I told him that doll was more terrifying than all other dolls in the world, clowns, furbies, even those with broken eyes that won’t close. Well, maybe I didn’t go that far but I did have to tell the good man I was terrified in order to get the wee hellion out of my face.
Wrapping up our ride we were given maps of the Shirakawa-go region, and told the best spots to visit. As a group we’d travel to a lookout point prior to entering the village, then be free to wander on our own for a few hours. Shirakawa-go is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, comprised of 140 thatched roof houses built in the gasshō-zukuri style, which when translated means “clasped-hands”, as the houses resemble hands clasped in prayer. It’s some Disney looking-kinda-beautiful-shit, and you almost imagine tiny and saucy mice thatching the roofs. The area gets a monumental amount of snowfall (on average 415 inches each year), which this style of roof can withstand. Gazing down at this fairy tale perfect town I just wanted to snuggle up in a blanket and drink tea while watching snow fall on the nearby mountains.
During our roamings we drank tea at a 200+ year old house which had a fire going on a warm day in late August, then toured the local Doburoku Festival Museum. The Festival Museum displays aren’t too memorable, mostly paper mache figurines, but the place is special in one very very very important way. A sake style known as doburoku is brewed here: an unfiltered sake that’s thick, milky, sweet, and clocks in around 14% alcohol. In order to earn the title doburoku, this sake needs to be brewed in shrines, kind of like how champagne can only be brewed in the champagne region of France.
Included in the already cheap museum admission is unlimited doburoku tastings, with the slight caveat that you need to drink the sake standing at the window where tickets are sold, making the ticket vendors your bartenders. A bit awkward but hell, you already had to take off your shoes to enter so you may as well stay awhile.
Feeling quite merry after a few rounds, we journeyed back to the bus where Orito let us in on two not-to-miss eats of Takayama. The first being hoba miso, food (usually meat or leeks) grilled with miso paste on a magnolia leaf then served alongside rice. The second was Hida beef. Since we were currently driving through the Hida region and outside our very bus windows were fields full of hida cows, no matter what we were to eat Hida beef.
Everyone’s heard of Kobe beef, but not many have heard of Hida. To give some perspective for just how savory this stuff is, beef in the U.S. needs to have between 6%-10% marbled fat to meet the highest USDA grade. In Japan though, to reach the highest quality beef standards, meat must be at least 25% marbled fat. The fat streaking the beef is monounsaturated too, which has a low melting temperature. So when people say the meat melts in your mouth that’s not an exaggeration, it will actually melt on your tongue.
Arriving back in Takayama we were completely ravenous. The city was dark at this point, and evening here was absolutely whimsical. The historic old town has a uniform style where all buildings are just a few stories tall and made of a rich, mocha colored wood. Having watched a lot of samurai movies, I could imagine Toshiro Mifune casually strolling by me, two swords on his hip, cool as Clint Eastwood (except Clint never had to be badass and wear a kimono). Unlike many Tokyo restaurants, few to no places here had English menus advertised, so we picked a cozy looking establishment that had a picture of beef on their menu and just went for it.
Inside we ordered the required hoba miso, which was cooked at our table on a small clay stove called a shichirin. Already feeling confident nothing would taste better than this, the meat was then brought to our table. Some thick, some thin, and piled next to heaps of local mushrooms, carrots, cabbage, peppers, onions, udon noodles, and I can’t even remember what else except holy shit get on a plane and go to Takayama right now. To cook the meat we were given another shichirin, and a ceramic bowl full of rich, thick broth, placed on a burner built into the table.
The thin meat you briefly cook by stirring into the broth for a few seconds, and the thicker meat you cook to your liking on the stove. The meat by itself was enough to make for a great time, but alongside the greatest mushrooms I’ve ever eaten which were swimming in an earthy stew and the salty sweet hoba miso, it was a fucking party. All of this was washed down with nigori, the sake style closest in resemblance to doburoku you can find outside of a shrine.
Wandering the streets afterwards in a blissful food coma, we debated whether to fall into a deep exhausted sleep or find a sake bar. We opted for sleep. Old town seemed to turn into a pumpkin at 9:00pm anyway, and passing no discernible bars we just curled into bed, gloriously fatty beef in our bellies.
Despite hearing how much of a coffee country Japan was, finding a cup that wasn’t from a vending machine or Starbucks had been proving difficult so far. A further snag in the search for coffee was that many cafes didn’t even open until late morning, not early enough to knock out the incoming caffeine headaches before they begin. So you can imagine my glee upon discovering an espresso cafe at 7:30am and ingesting a small cup of compressed caffeine. Accompanying my coffee bliss was toast and marmalade, which may sound boring, but the toast was an inch thick and clearly cooked in a skillet slathered in butter. It was beyond decadent. Carl ordered scones served fresh and warm, with a side of hand whipped cream.
Everything was lovely, then the two women next to us began smoking. Being 8:00am and in a small space this was a bit jarring, but in Japan smoking bans have gone into effect and outdoor smoking is even illegal in Tokyo depending on the neighborhood you’re in. This makes bars and cafes the easiest places to light up. We’d even passed a donut shop that had a smoking room, so at this point our nostrils had gotten used to breathing in smoke with our food and booze.
After breakfast and a brief walk through some historical buildings in old town it was time for the really big show. Sake. To find a sake brewery keep on the lookout for sugidama, large cedar balls hanging above entrances, or sake barrels stationed outside. At Harada brewery you simply pay about a buck for a small cup, then you’re given unlimited access to a cooler full of a dozen bottles of sake from there. You’re on your own to pour what you’d like, which after living for years in Philadelphia confused me a bit, since if you give anyone in that city a never ending open bar then the place won’t be there in the morning.
However, this is Japan after all, and being around 11:00am we didn’t spot anyone going full-Philly. In total we tried 4 styles, ranging from the milky thick nigori to a clear and crisp gingo, while sitting at a picnic table eating pork buns and sake cheesecake. Seven breweries exist in Takayama today, and we weren’t satisfied with just one. We wanted MORE.
Hirase came next in our sake jaunt and I would have overnighted here if they’d let me. Opening in 1623, it’s the oldest sake brewery in Takayama, but not nearly the oldest in Japan (That spot is reserved for Sudo Honke, which dates back to 1141 and actively brews today). Passed down 15 generations in a row and currently exported overseas, a bottle from this house will put you back a hundred bucks in The States, but here you can drink as much as you want for nothing. Like the Harada brewery, tastings here are totally free. Since I felt guilt for drinking such a prestigious and sought after beverage for nothing, I purchased a small set of glasses for 1000 yen (around $10.00). These glasses featured little Sarubobo’s on them, the things are less alarming when miniaturized.*
Frank Lloyd Wright, eat your heart out at the interior of this place. Interlocking beams run perpendicular to one another supporting the roof, creating a structure that seems woven together. While we marveled at the building the manager pointed to the rafters and said “300 years”. I will never understand those that get frustrated with others for not speaking English. Here I am in a smaller city in Japan, and someone is still willing to try and explain a building’s history to me in my own language. If someone from Japan needed me to articulate anything beyond “thank you” I’d shit myself.
There’s never as much time as we’d like, and after the brief tasting we had to run and catch our train back to Tokyo. Luckily, from old town Takayama nothing is longer than a 15 minute walk so we were able to chug it to the train station in 10 minutes. This allowed just enough time to reminisce about finding Orito’s tour bus stationed in front of the train station less than 24 hours before. His Hawaiian shirt bright orange against the otherwise gray sky, signaling us over to him.
*I opted towards glasses rather than actual sake since we were boarding a plane to Hong Kong in just 2 days with carry-on luggage, so there likely wouldn’t be enough time to drink a bottle before then (what with going out to local bars in the meantime). Carl giggled at my purchase though, stating that the glasses would be full of sake. I doubted this whole-heartedly at first, since such a renowned brewery seemed unlikely to pump a boxed glass set full of booze in an attempt to sell it, but after getting back to Tokyo that evening I double checked and indeed found that not only was my souvenir filled with alcohol, but that the glasses themselves had peel off caps. Sake on-the-go if you will. We drank the sake down while watching the women’s world volleyball championship between Japan and the U.S. prior to going out into Shinjuku.